CLEARWATER, Fla. – Jorge Alfaro returned to the Phillies clubhouse Saturday morning toting his gear. Tucked inside were a pair of broken bats, shattered remnants of the 32 pitches Jake Arrieta fired as he faced hitters for the first time since signing his $75 million contract.
Alfaro's first bat snapped on an inside fastball. Five minutes later, his replacement wood splintered when it met Arrieta's cutter. Arrieta threw for 20 minutes, and Alfaro's bat bag told the pitcher everything he needed to know about his progress as the season nears.
"Alfaro got the bad end of that one," said Scott Kingery, one of four hitters to face Arrieta in a simulated game at the Carpenter Complex. "I'm just happy I walked away without any broken bats."
Arrieta's goals on Saturday were simple, as he worked to fine-tune the timing of his delivery and to throw each of his pitches for strikes. There were no umpires, fielders, or base runners. It was just Arrieta, the hitter, and catcher Andrew Knapp, who also was behind the plate for Wednesday's bullpen session, when Arrieta threw 40 pitches. Saturday's session was far from a declaration that Arrieta will be ready for the second game of the season but it was a step in that direction.
It was his first game setting in five months, and Arrieta wanted to see how he reacted to being ahead and behind in the count. He will throw again in a few days and plans to throw 60 to 70 pitches. The setting — another simulated game or a minor-league or major-league spring training game — has yet to be determined.
"As long as we can take that pitch count to a point where we're comfortable going into the season, then I think we're going to be just fine," Arrieta said.
The Phillies, even with the loss of Jerad Eickhoff to injury, are still in position to not need Arrieta until April 11 if he is not ready for the start of the season. General manager Matt Klentak said Friday that the team could opt to carry an extra starter, offering the Phillies a chance to relieve him after three or four innings.
"There's a lot of different ways we can go with this," Klentak said. "We're going to do whatever puts us in the best position to win those first 10 days of the season."
Arrieta warmed in the bullpen before pitching two simulated innings against Alfaro, Kingery, Logan Moore, and Andrew Pullin. It was Arrieta's first chance to face hitters, but also the hitters' first chance to see him. The pitcher's crossfire delivery, where he stands on the third-base side of the rubber and throws across his body, was "extremely deceptive," Kingery said.
"When he's hammering away, and then goes sinker in, and it's all across the body, so it throws you off a little bit," Kingery said. "But then that curveball coming across the body looks like it's coming at your head, but then it goes right down the middle."
Manager Gabe Kapler said, "You saw these guys walk back from the plate kind of shaking their heads and smiling; it's not an accident, right? It's different kind of stuff they see on a regular basis.
"Arrieta has always had a high degree of deception. Now, he has a real good command of his pitches that's better now than it ever has been, and I know, as a right-handed hitter, that when a guy steps across his body and fires the other way, you lose sight of the baseball," Kapler said. "That kind of velocity and that kind of stuff, it's a lead heavy ball. It's really hard to get the barrel to it, because you don't have a good feel of where the ball is in space."
Eflin looks like rotation favorite
Zach Eflin learned last week that a lot can change in just five days, as he went from triple-A pitcher to a favorite to make the major-league rotation.
Eflin threw his first pitch against the Braves on Monday just as Arrieta was boarding team owner John Middleton's private jet to take the final spot in the Phillies rotation. Eflin was surely headed for the minors. But he started Saturday's 10-6 win over the Braves just one day after Eickhoff was declared out until May with a strained muscle in his back. Eflin is the likely replacement.
"It's an absolute horrible thing. You never want to see anything like that happen," Eflin said. "He's the hardest worker on the team. I look up to him every single day. He's the ultimate professional, the ultimate competitor, and it really, really, really sucks to see someone like him go down."
Eflin allowed four runs in four innings, including a two-run homer by prospect Ronald Acuna Jr. in the first inning. The righthander struck out four and walked none, as he worked heavily on his slider. Eflin began working on the pitch last season with former pitching coach Bob McClure.
"I'm probably going to go out on a limb and say it's the most sliders I've ever thrown in a game, even through four innings," Eflin said. "They all felt great. There were a couple that were up, but, for the most part, it's really starting to be my wipeout pitch. I'm really happy about that. I've been waiting on it for a while, but it's really starting to come along, and I'm getting a lot of confidence in the pitch and a lot confidence in all my other pitchers."